Authored by: Niall Ferguson

Reviewed by: Kevin Miller

Keyword: Hierarchy, Networks, Platforms, Markets, Power, World History, Kingdom of God

The Essence of the Book:

The always-engaging historian Niall Ferguson takes a sweeping stab at describing the inherent, important conflicts between hierarchy and networks in the context of selected real-world associations and events throughout history. This captivating repositioning of history is deeply insightful…and the results of conflicts between hierarchies and networks are currently being played out every day in the lives of us all.

Ferguson’s narrative provides both important breadth and essential depth: world explorers, the Freemasons, the Reformation and Europe’s religious wars, political revolutions, modern tech giants such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon, and beyond.

Increasingly, powerful hierarchies (e.g., Federal government, entrenched industrial-era corporations) and less-powerful hierarchies (e.g., the typical organization’s customer-service apparatus) are being challenged for their inefficiencies…and, often, as to their very existence…in our modern, digitally-networked era. Such challenges are made by motivated individuals, business entrepreneurs, and public policy critics…and, soon, if not here already, your organization’s competitors.

Ferguson writes in his introduction, “As we shall see, this dichotomy between hierarchy and network is an over-simplification.” The network experts and professional sociologists will agree with that. But Ferguson is indeed correct about the importance of this reality. The battle is now-and-forever engaged on multiple fronts, significant disruption is happening, and Ferguson’s insights deserve our closest attention.

Whitestone Commentary:

No matter your career stage or vocation, understanding the tension between networks and hierarchy is absolutely essential for your personal thriving and stewardship in the future.

For example, will your product-offering organization use an Amazon-style network-marketplace structure for handling storage, inventory, supply chain, and logistics or will it use a more traditional approach? Which would prevail for you? Will you be thwarted after spending years and many resources developing the wrong approach?

Does your organization have the mindset and skills orientation prevail in this amazing, rapid-paced, world-wide migration to ever-flexing digital networks? As an aspiring leader in your field, have you cultivated this essential mindset? Or, as an established leader, have you cultivated the necessary understanding, wisdom, and resulting flexibility to survive?

This grand book by Niall Ferguson is a foundational part of starting to fully understand modern digital networks, their power, and their effectiveness. Grab ahold of this book. A few portions are unnecessarily (to you and me) “thick” and technical (even though elementary for “real” network geeks), but the fruits of this book will definitely be evident to you upon your reading and reflection.

A large number of the typically-short chapters are thought-provoking and often startling, carving out a well-deserved spot in your mind to ponder. You will find Ferguson’s choice of topics illuminating and persuasive in building the case for contrasting “the [hierarchical] tower and the [network] square.” (But feel free to skip or just skim some of the chapters in this book that are highly technical, detailed, or opaque. Remember, a book like this shouldn’t own you—you own the book!)

One key strategic (and fully understandable—due to his apparent non-Christian status) weakness in Ferguson’s book is his exclusion of the hierarchy-network tension in the Genesis-to-Revelation narrative of God’s unshakeable Kingdom (“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” Hebrews 12:28a ESV).

Part of man’s consistent aspiration to be “like God” (that the serpent initially ascertained and exploited) and unnecessarily create and enforce hierarchies where “I” get to rule “you.” God has consistently considered a more “flattened,” serpent-excluding organization most appropriate, from the garden of Eden…to His scattering humankind after man’s self-aspirational Tower of Babel…to His administering of Israel until the Israelites demanded a man-king be inserted hierarchically between them and God.

But even so, God does retain a certain hierarchy for certain functions (both inside and outside of the church)—the trick for us is to understand the “when” and the “who” and the “why” of the roles God appoints us to. The proper application of roles is something essential that mankind has routinely failed at for many centuries, before Christ and until this very day. And our success often foundationally depends upon wise application of this discernment. (See Lasting Greatness Keys #8 through #10, but especially #10 to get the details of the Jesus-way of leadership.)

So, how should we approach hierarchies and networks appropriately in the 21st century?

At the Cross and Resurrection, God once-and-for-all flattened hierarchy into Jesus specifically directing each Christian as his or her Lord and Mediator.  Jesus is appointed by God the only “Melchizedek” mediator between God and man (Genesis 14:18, 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 7:15-22). A very flat structure, indeed. In the same vein, the book of Acts reveals the “networked” community-building and witnessing of the church, orchestrated by the flattened, every-believer-empowered direction by the Holy Spirit.

Still, God appoints pastors to do essential local shepherding of local churches—each local body a small, essential, local hierarchy in an organization full of priesthood-believers.

Ferguson aptly describes Martin Luther’s leveraging of the printing press to spark Reformation effectiveness. But one major world-class narrative that Ferguson missed was the modern missions movement of the 20th century: where hundreds of millions of new Christians were “networked-in” to the Kingdom worldwide—pre-digitally! (“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” Colossians 1:13 ESV) This was quite a network event, a decades-long transformation of a segment of the world’s population at a scale never before seen.

What does this mean in the 21st century for Christians, when Protestant denominations (which typically have evolved to be more and more hierarchical) are now routinely unbinding, even dissolving? Can the Holy Spirit actually work effectively apart from man’s insatiable drive to gain and wield power in tall, hierarchical layers of human “management”…?

Truth be told, God engendered “network-effectiveness” via Old Testament prophets and willing remnants and individuals (read: Joseph, Esther, Daniel) apart from insufficient or errant hierarchy-kings. And He has long engendered network-effectiveness via Jesus-anchored, Holy Spirit-directed believers working to be conformed to Christ in their everyday, local-sphere-appointed lives. As a result, countless disciples have been made—creating the most effective, longest-lasting, unbroken-generations network in human history! Yes—the most effective, longest-lasting, unbroken-generations network in human history—under the “flattened” leadership of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

What to say to author Ferguson? This is an important, helpful book to grapple with the tension between networks and hierarchies—raw power and nastiness included—and all the more helpful because it is written by a non-believer.

Just so, because believers can themselves add the layer of understanding that comes from Kingdom-history discernment and additional Spirit-led study. The inescapable conclusion from such study is that modern digital organizations are successful because they, unwittingly or not, have mimicked the approaches God is using for His Kingdom. (See the Whitestone Seminar named “Match Made: The Power of Platforms” to blow your mind on this topic!)

Thanks, Dr. Ferguson, for this seminal work in grappling with one the thorniest, power-seductive organizational challenges ever: hierarchy vs. networks. We Christians will roll up our sleeves and work at our businesses, nonprofit organizations, and the Kingdom itself in this rapidly-expanding, hardly-completed digital era we occupy.

No less than Luther being enabled by the printing press, we can and should expect to be fully Spirit-led and digitally-enabled in everything “our hands find to do.”


Reviewed by Kevin Miller